Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Christmas Reflection

Joseph, the Obedient Father

If you were God and you were working out an elaborate plan whereby one member of the Trinity would visit humankind, be born as a baby, and grow to manhood before revealing himself as the Messiah, you wouldn’t want him growing up in just any old home, right? Not that Jesus could have turned out badly, but because you’d want him in a caring environment where his parents saw to his physical and spiritual well-being. Much is made, as it should be, of Jesus’ mother Mary. She was a remarkable young woman whose words “let it be to me according to your word” should be our heartbeat. But we don’t hear as much about Joseph and I think that’s too bad.

We’re introduced to him in Matthew 1, where, after a long line of “___ the father of ___ and ___ the father of ___,” there’s “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born . . .” Right away you know something is different, which we know is the Virgin Birth, as we’re told in the following verses. Verse 18 tells us that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph and “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Except Joseph didn’t know the Holy Spirit part. Not yet.

I’m a marriage counselor and a large part of my practice is helping couples whose lives have been ravaged by an extramarital affair. I’ve sat across from couples and watched as the offended spouse battled with the shock and disillusionment of the betrayal. Their world has been turned upside down; everything they thought they knew is now up for grabs.

Was this what Joseph was feeling when he discovered Mary was pregnant? Did he sit there in disbelief as Mary told him (assuming she told him; Scripture doesn’t say) she’d been visited by an angel and that her pregnancy was the Holy Spirit’s doing? I’ve heard offending spouses weave some pretty remarkable explanations for the cause of their affairs. Was Joseph’s head spinning as this discovery was made? I don’t know, but I think we do an injustice to Joseph if we don’t consider the real possibility that he was feeling some of this. They were betrothed, which was a far higher level of commitment than engagement in our culture, and in our day, finding out the one you’re engaged to has had an affair is plenty bad. Our culture has cooked up the awful practice of “friends with benefits.” Betrothal was like marriage without benefits. You weren’t yet living together, there were no sexual relations, yet it would take a legal divorce to end the relationship. Surely Joseph and Mary had talked and dreamed together about their future. Their marriage might have been arranged yet it’s pretty clear they loved each other. We know from the text that Joseph loved Mary, which I’m going to get into shortly. We’re not told this by Scripture, but I’m assuming Mary loved Joseph because she had such incredible greatness of heart. With a heart like hers how would she not have loved Joseph? So undoubtedly they’d dreamed of the life they’d live together, the children they’d raise to be faithful to the Law, the carpentry trade he’d teach their boys. Was that spinning wildly in Joseph’s mind as he learned Mary was pregnant?

I think it’s clear that Joseph loved Mary because of verse 19: “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Don’t get hung up on the divorce part. The Law allowed for that. It also allowed for Mary to be exposed, disgraced, and stoned to death. Joseph had a good heart; he wanted to continue his faithfulness to the law but in a way that would not hurt Mary. That’s sacrificial love.

Did Joseph know the extent to which Mary’s “out of wedlock” pregnancy would affect the rest of their lives? Did he know that his son’s parentage would be questioned, and those comments would call Mary’s integrity into question? Did he anticipate that he would be talked about, laughed at, as he went about his business in Nazareth? “Hey, there’s Joseph. What a rube! How na├»ve is that, to marry a girl who couldn’t even stay faithful during their betrothal?” Or, more likely, “well we know what you and Mary have been doing.”

I don’t know, I can only presume, what Joseph was thinking. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe not. What I’m sure of is that Joseph was a good man, just the sort of man you’d want to raise your son. He was a just man, faithful to the law. And he was led by God. Matthew 1:20 says “behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” In 2:13 it says “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” And again in 2:19 it says “an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt.” Just like Mary, Joseph had a good heart. The angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and says “marry this girl” and he does. He shows up again and tells Joseph “move to Egypt and stay there until I tell you” and he does. The angel of the Lord shows up yet again and says “it’s time to go home to Israel but don’t settle where Archelaus is” and he obeys. Mary said “behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In his own quiet way Joseph said that, too.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Steve Johnson's Twitter Message--My Take

Last Sunday the lowly Buffalo Bills took the mighty Pittsburg Steelers to overtime in their football game. In pro football overtimes the first team to score wins the game (at least in the regular season). Early in the overtime the Bills quarterback threw a pass that landed perfectly in the hands of wide receiver Steve Johnson as he crossed into the end zone. Catch it and it’s game over. Bills win! But Johnson dropped the ball and the Steelers went on to win the game.

After the game Johnson was inconsolable. Within an hour or so after the game ended he posted this on Twitter: I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!!AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!!YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS???HOW???!!!ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!!THX THO…

I guess Steve Johnson was pretty angry at God, felt He’d let him down. When I read about this on I scrolled down to read some of the comments. I find it interesting, amazing, and often horrifying to see what people write (anonymously, of course) in online forums. Not surprisingly, several would-be theologians had something to say to Steve Johnson.

One said: Steve—God puts the twigs on the trees but the Robin still has to make the nest. God gives you abilities—don’t question him if you fail to use them. God cares about you, but not football. Are you using what you have to honor God, or are you just questioning him when you fail?

End of sermon.

Another said: This just in from God . . .

Pray less . . . practice more.

Thank you.

And another: God doesn’t do anything, he empowers each person to make up their own mind. If they want to follow it or not is each person (sic) choice. If Johnson wants to blame God for his dropping the football that is his choice but before he blames God he needs to make sure he was prepared for the event.

So take that, Steve Johnson. You’ve been put in your place. But what I’d like to suggest is that Johnson’s Twitter message was much closer to what the Bible teaches about a life of faith than the theology lessons he got from the ones telling him to shut up, to not talk to God that way, to stop blaming God. What he said is about what you’ll find in about half the Psalms and other places in the Bible. Read Psalm 88 or Jeremiah 20 if you don’t believe me. What God seems to be saying, particularly in the Psalms, is that in a life of faith, of walking with God, you’re going to feel many emotions. Sometimes you’ll feel peaceful, happy, and secure in the feeling that God is right there beside you (see Psalm 18, for example). Other times you’ll feel let down, angry, like God has deserted you. Since the Psalter was Israel’s worship hymnal God seems to be saying that whatever we’re feeling he wants us to have a conversation with him about it. Many Bible scholars suggest that’s what made David “a man after God’s own heart.” It wasn’t the “exemplary” life he’d led. No, it was the pattern we see in the Psalms he wrote, that whatever was going on with him he talked to God about it. I think it’s possible that’s what Steve Johnson was trying to do, however inadvisable it is to do that in a public forum (though the Psalms are widely published). I’m not suggesting that our anger at God is right or justified. Was Johnson right to blame God? I don’t think so. Yet in that crushing moment he felt like God had let him down and he expressed that feeling to God. Don’t we all (or maybe it’s just me?) cry out to God, complain to him at times—on the job, in a relationship, at a hospital—and feel betrayed by Him? Yes. Is God a God who betrays? No. But he’d rather have us angry and talking to him than silent and proud and distant from him. Steve Johnson may in fact be closer to God than many of his critics. After all, one of the best ways to avoid a relationship with God is by being good, being religious, a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of person.

Yesterday Johnson posted a few more Tweets trying to explain himself. Among them were these: “I learned A lot Within 24hrs. Saw Both Sides.(Ups&Dwns) I AM HAPPY & THANKFUL 4 YESTERDAY! w/out Sunday iWldnt have grew closer w/The Lord!!” “And No I Did Not Blame God People! Seriously??!? Cmon! I Simply Cried Out And Asked Why? Jus Like yal did wen sumthin went wrong n ur life!”

I cannot possibly know what Steve Johnson’s relationship with God is really like. I hope he also publicly praises God when things go well for him. I hope I do to. After all, whether praising God or questioning him, it’s all right there in the Bible as an example of how to be truly close to God.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Choose Wisely

“. . . the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature.” James Garfield, 20th President of the United States

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Altars and Tents

Arriving in Canaan, Abraham built an altar to worship God and pitched a tent (Genesis 12:8). The altar and the tent are both characteristic of a spiritual journey. The altar represents our commitment to giving God the supreme place in our lives. The altar is the place where we meet God, the place where we call upon God, the place where we respond to the call of God. The tent reminds us that life is transitory and that we are on a journey. Whenever we replace God on the altar of our lives, we create idols or addictions. Whenever we replace the tent we forget that life is transitory and create a mausoleum, a kind of death in the midst of life. It may be a beautiful home or a great business but without the context of the altar and the recognition of the tent, it is death in the midst of life. Knowing God . . . involves respecting God on the altar of our lives and remembering that we live in a tent.

-David F. Allen, M.D. in Contemplation: Intimacy in a Distant World

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My Addiction

As a counselor I know how helpful groups can be to clients, including those with addictions. I already know what my next group is going to be. And I aim to start it, just as soon as I beat the addiction.

I’m talking about my addiction to books. It’s been a lifelong battle, you see. I grew up in a family that loved to read. We didn’t get a television set until I was about 12, and as a young boy my family would often sit together in the evening while Mom would read several chapters of The Little House on the Prairie series. Mom could really make a story come alive and we loved listening. As soon as I was able to read I was off and running. I brought books home from the school library, as many as I could get. When we’d go to town on Saturdays the public library would be our first stop, and I’d spend the rest of the afternoon in the car reading my books, no matter how hot or cold it was. Back in those days it was often a Happy Hollisters mystery. I’d finish it before we left for church the next morning.

Several times a year at my daughter’s daycare they have book fairs, and Linnea always wants to load up on books. Seeing her Scholastic Books catalog is a reminder of how I used to drag their catalog home from school when I was a boy and beg and plead for my parents to buy me some books. They didn’t really have the money to spare but somehow they often scraped some together and bought me the books. And then I’d wait. And wait. And wait some more. It seemed like forever before my beloved books would arrive in the mail.

Then my teenage years arrived and I started earning my own money. That coincided with the Family Bible Week book table at my church, where my pastor would assemble an assortment of books that we could peruse during the week and place our orders. And not long after that I discovered a company way back in Massachusetts that sold Christian books at a deep discount. It was Christian Book Distributors, which is now But again, whether ordering books at Family Bible Week or from CBD, they’d take what seemed like forever to be shipped, which is a terribly long time to an addict.

Then came and the aforementioned That sped up the process quite a bit: you were no longer mailing an order form and a check that had to clear before the books were shipped; they had the order immediately and charged it to the credit card on file. Still that blasted wait, though, which could be excruciatingly long, especially when you’re (once again) waiting on the book that is going to change everything.

About a year ago I got an iPhone. I was pretty slow to add apps but one day when I was looking through the App Store I saw “Amazon Kindle for iPhone.” Well that looked interesting! I didn’t buy anything right away but the thought began to play in my head that it would be nice to have just one book on the phone that would be available if I had a long wait at a doctor’s office or something like that. I’d never have to be without a book. So I downloaded the app, spent the next few days looking at book samples, and eventually purchased one. Which was really easy to do. Amazon, God bless them, has this handy “one-click ordering” that makes it all very simple and fast. I’m sure they did it just to be nice.

I counted the other day, and I now have 15 books (not counting a few samples) on my iPhone. Did I mention how easy it is with one-click ordering? As any addiction specialist will tell you, there is nothing like quick and easy access to fuel an addiction. I am really proud to tell you that I recently confessed to my wife how many books I’ve got on my phone. She was very gracious and kind about it; didn’t give me a hard time at all. Aw, who am I kidding? She didn’t rebuke me because she’s addicted to books herself. She doesn’t have an iPhone, so that should help. She briefly tried to read one on my phone and didn’t like it. But the other evening on our date when we walked away from a bookstore eighty dollars poorer, she did say, “I can see how a regular size Amazon Kindle would be really nice.”

So if I ever beat my addiction, and if I’m not working two jobs to pay for books so that I actually have the time to lead a Kindle addiction group, I’m going to do it.

I’ll keep you posted.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thin Places review

How can a book be both gut-wrenching and beautiful? In Thin Places: a memoir, author Mary DeMuth pulls it off. This is the moving account of Mary’s life growing up as a child of a broken home, sexually abused at an early age, and struggling to feel like she mattered. It’s the story of how a teenage girl, struggling with thoughts of suicide, finds Jesus, and how He redeems her story.

Mary’s book is not easy to read; it’s gut-wrenching, as I said. Oh, she is an incredibly gifted writer and she holds the readers’ attention with ease as she skillfully intertwines stories of her early life with later events. It’s just that some of it makes you want to scream and throw the book across the room and curse this fallen world where Satan steals so much. Like the 14 year-old junior high student who whispers in Mary’s ear before her wedding, “Don’t worry, it hurts at first but it gets better.”

What makes it beautiful is the courage Mary displays by opening up her life for all to see, all the painful, awful things that happened to her, the ways it still affects her now, and how she’s found, and is finding, freedom. Through her life you see that, while Satan steals so much, he can never destroy. God takes what is meant for evil (such as the con artist who steals the DeMuth’s house) and uses it for good in our lives.

It’s beautiful in the way Mary is willing to put her struggles out there for us without (apparently) feeling the need to tie up all the loose ends. One of my former counseling professors once commented on the way Christians typically (and safely) confess things in the past tense— “I used to struggle with ___ but God gave me the victory.” Mary turns the tables and confesses some present tense things. By doing this I think she demonstrates the truth that we struggle not only with the damage done to us by sinners but the damage we do to ourselves and others as sinners. However we’ve been hurt by sin Mary shows how God provides the healing and forgiveness and love we need and long for.

Frederick Buechner in Speak What We Feel: not what we ought to say, says, “it is Red Smith who is reported to have said that it’s really very easy to be a writer, all you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein . . . vein-opening writers are putting not just themselves into their books, but themselves at their nakedest and most vulnerable . . . and many good writers never do it at all.” Mary did it, opened a vein and bled on the page, and in doing so, wonderfully points to Another who spilled his blood to redeem us, our stories. Buechner goes on to say “since I have long since come to believe that all of our stories are at their deepest level the same story, it is my hope that in listening to these . . . say so powerfully not what they thought they ought to say, but what they truly felt, we may possibly learn something about how to bear the weight of our own sadness.” Mary’s story will make you think about your own story, your own sadness, and the ways Jesus shows up in it.

“Thin places,” Mary writes, “are snatches of time, moments really, when we sense God intersecting our world in tangible, unmistakable ways. They are aha moments, beautiful realizations, when the Son of God bursts through the hazy fog of our monotony and shines on us afresh.” And oh how He bursts through in Mary DeMuth’s book, showing up as He truly is, the Star of all our stories.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Paul David Tripp on marriage

I just got Paul David Tripp's book, What Did You Expect?, yesterday and I've only read a few pages. These words really jumped out at me:

I am persuaded that it is more regular than irregular for couples to get married with unrealistic expectations. Again and again I have sat with couples who simply do not seem to be taking seriously the important things the Bible has to say about what every marriage will encounter in the here and now. Unrealistic expectations always lead to disappointment . . . Part of the problem is the way we use Scripture. We mistakenly treat the Bible as if it were arranged by topic—you know, the world’s best compendium of human problems and divine solutions. So when we’re thinking about marriage we run to all the marriage passages. But the Bible isn’t an encyclopedia; it is a story, the great origin-to-destiny story of redemption. In fact, it is more than a story. It is a theologically annotated story. It is a story with God’s notes. This means that we cannot understand what the Bible says about marriage by looking only at the marriage passages, because there is a vast amount of biblical information about marriage not found in the marriage passages. In fact, we could argue, to the degree that every portion of the Bible tells us things about God, about ourselves, about life in this present world, and about the nature of the human struggle and the divine solution, to that degree every passage in the Bible is a marriage passage.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Pat Robertson, Marketing Genius?

I regularly read stuff about marketing, looking for ways to get the Center for Biblical Counseling of McKinney noticed. So I just had this thought: is Pat Robertson just an (evil?) marketing genius? The dude sure knows how to get people talking about him.

Unfortunately, I don't think it's a ploy to get noticed. I think he really believes what he says.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tim Keller: How Do You Take Criticism of Your Views?

Great food for thought! I really needed this and will continue to think about it and ask God to change my heart in this area. Read it here: